Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review of "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash is a novel by Neal Stephenson. The story follows two characters, Hiro Protagonist, a down-and-out computer hacker working as a pizza deliverator, and Y.T., a teenage girl who works as a courier. They join forces to battle the creators of an intellectual virus in a capitalist dystopia. Published in 1992, it predicted many computer-based phenomena and coined several terms.

It surprises me that it took me this long to pick it up. Snow Crash is highly regarded in the geek community and I have received several recommendations. I recall that Pyramid Magazine, normally strictly a gaming magazine, was so enamoured of this book in the 90's that they dedicated several pages to reprint a selection. I had very high expectations when I opened it. No, it is not the godlike masterpiece that I had expected, but it was still quite good.

Stephenson's strength is his prose. There is a memorable, clever metaphor or simile on practically every page. The first chapter, in particular, is perfect. It is perfectly exciting. It is a perfect introduction to Stephenson's dystopia. It is perfectly clever. The first chapter is a godlike masterpiece and it's a shame that the rest of the book is merely very good. But the book can hardly be faulted for not being able to measure up to itself. Can it?

The universe itself is fascinating. It is a computerized version of Reaganomics, down to the fact that the insanely-inflated bills have pictures of his cabinet members on them. The US government has essentially vanished, leaving North America in the grip of powerful corporations and the Mafia. Beneath this chaotic capitalist free-for-all is a virtual reality universe called the Metaverse. The Metaverse is kind of like what might happen if Second Life took over the entire internet: a place where each person who logs on has an "avatar" (a term invented by Stephenson, I believe), can access programs and own virtual real estate. It is fascinating to watch the characters navigate through this mess of a universe, which is ripe for adventure.

I mentioned that this book is good but not godlike. The exposition drags it down. Entire chapters of this book are devoted to Hiro talking to a computer-librarian about ancient Sumer, Enki and Asherah. How many chapters? A conservative guess is four. These chapters are a flagrant violation of "show, don't tell" and really do go on and on. Snow Crash experiences a disappointing lull about half-way through in which Hiro and the Librarian blab at each other. Frankly, during this lull I began to think about reading other books and wondering if I should bother finishing Snow Crash. It's not that these chapters aren't interesting and fascinating in their own right, but they are too much of a good thing.

Thankfully, Hiro eventually pulls himself out of the virtual library and starts doing things again. From there the story returns to its former quality. The ending is quite satisfying.

Snow Crash is prophetic in the number of technologies and terms it coined or anticipated, and is a great read besides. Don't be like me and put off reading it for years.
4 bimbo boxes out of 5

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review of Cabaret

Next on the list of AFI's movies is Cabaret, #63. It is a loose adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name, set in the last days of the Weimar Republic in Germany. Liza Minnelli is Sally Bowles, a performer at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin, who gets entangled in a confused relationship with a visiting English teacher, Brian Roberts (Michael York). The two try to live their decadent lives under the growing shadow cast by the Nazis.

This movie, despite what you may think of it, has actually aged well. Unlike many movies made in the 70's on this list, historical pics included, there are no distracting hallmarks that date it: mainly, the weird hairstyles and sappy/raunchy 70's music. Regardless of the dating and lack thereof, I quite enjoyed it. It has a style all its own. It is a musical where the characters do not spontaneously burst into song. When a character's inner emotions need to be expressed, the scene usually cuts to a relevant musical number at the Kit Kat Klub.

One of the things I like best about this movie is the character of Brian. While Sally Bowles is a familiar character, the artsy, flakey, over-emotional performer who wants to be a real actress, Brian's reactions to her are original. Sally abuses their relationship in the way we would expect, but instead of being driven to violence, the standard Hollywood response, Brian responds with either understanding or his own abuses. He is never a victim and that's refreshing. I won't go into many details for fear of spoilers. Well okay, ***here's a vague SPOILER***: it's very rare that all points of fictional love triangles connect. ***end spoiler alert***

Cabaret contains a scene that is famous in movie history, the powerful "Tommorow Belongs to Me" scene, and I don't feel bad about describing it because it appears in many books on cinema and film school classes. Brian and Maximilian are chatting at an outdoor cafe when a young man stands and begins singing in a beautiful tenor. The cafe-goers are enchanted by the loveliness and earnestness of the song, and perhaps so is the film's viewer. That is until the camera pans downward and we see the young man is dressed in a Nazi uniform. As the cafe's attendees rise in rousing song and Brian and Max skedaddle, I felt the hairs on my back prickling in terror. This scene perfectly encapsulates the madness that led the Nazis to power and the world to war in 1939.

As a side note, this scene once again just goes to show that interpretation of art is all in the eyes of the audience. While the reaction I experienced to this scene was the one, I believe, that the filmmakers intended, it is not so with all audiences. "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" has been embraced as an anthem by White Pride groups. Some people, I tell you.

Cabaret is complicated and heartbreaking (for a musical). Once again, not for all tastes, but it certainly was for mine.
Beedle-dee dee dee dee! 4 1/2 Ladies out of 5, and I'm the only man

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Moral Responsibilities of Storytelling

I once had a fascinating discussion with a friend. We were talking about the effect of movies and television upon society. His point was that modern entertainment has an evil effect. People see evil things acted out upon their screens and imitate them. He believed there was a case for the viewpoint that the images we see in our entertainment need to be controlled for the good of society. I asked him if he was playing devil's advocate and he insisted he wasn't. It was a conversation that haunted me for years afterward.

This idea returned while I was reading An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England. In it, a judge considers the idea of good stories and morality. He asks, if a story compels somebody to do something terrible, can it be said to be a "good" story? Is it to be tolerated or legislated? Entertainment as societal evil is an idea rampant in our society. The effect of entertainment, especially the young, has been under media scrutiny at least since the 80's, when parents of suicidal teens claimed that heavy metal music was responsible for their children's deaths. It returned with renewed force ten years ago when violent video games like Doom were proclaimed to be partially responsible for the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold when they murdered twelve students and each other at Columbine High School in 1999.

But the question is older than the 1980s, older than television and radio. It is present wherever stories are told. Consider the case of Swift Runner, a plains cree who succumbed to Wendigo psychosis in the winter of 1878. He butchered his family, hung their corpses from trees and ate them. Before he was executed, he claimed he was a Witiko. The legend of Witiko (Wendigo or Windigo), the evil spirit who possesses humans and makes them cannibals, was a part of his upbringing. If he had never heard the stories of Witiko, surely Swift Runner would never have killed and eaten his family.

Arguments are always strengthened by science, of course. What does science have to say? Much of the data are contradictory, but many studies, such as this one indicate that seeing fictional depictions of suicides on screen results in a significant jump in real-world suicides through imitation. There are many other scientific examples and many other evils.

This is what disturbed me about the conversation I had with my friend. Here I was, pursuing a career as a storyteller, whether on screen or the written page, and suddenly I was burdened with a new responsibility. Something that I lovingly craft for the enjoyment of others could result in violence, a murder or suicide. If something I wrote inspired even one murder anywhere in the world, how could I live with that? I tried to justify my career by merely ignoring the problem and denying what I had heard, but it didn't work. It made me sick and not want to write anymore. Either that or commit myself to writing stories about pixies leaping from toadstool to toadstool, drinking snapdragon nectar and being friends with each other.

If you too are a storyteller, take heart. Here's how I felt better about myself. As I pondered the morality of storytelling, I remembered that the interpretation of art is done by its audience. If a story has unforseen negative societal consequences, surely it must have unforseen positive consequences as well. For every teen who commits suicide because he imitated a fictional depiction, how many people who saw the same depiction were pushed from the brink of suicide by what they saw or were inspired to commit some act of kindness that saved somebody's life? For every evil your story inflicts upon the world, it is surely balanced by strengthening of spirits and kindly acts that the media rarely report upon.

Is this merely fanciful rationalization to make me feel better about myself? At its emotional core, yes. But check out this study, which shows the effect of fictional suicides on non-suicidal people. It shows a short-term increase in depression and tension, followed by a lasting increase in self-esteem and happiness. The rate of suicide also drops. Good enough for me.

Further, I believe the people who imitate the violence in stories are troubled individuals before they are inspired. They are primed explosives and any event or story may inspire them to violence. I believe that if Eric Harris, Dylan Kelbold and Swift Runner only had stories of merry pixies hopping about on toadstools to entertain them, they would probably have murdered people by drowning them in snapdragon nectar.

But this is not to say that I, as a storyteller, do not have a moral responsibility to society. While I cannot be held responsible for the ways in which my art is interpreted by individuals, there is still the matter of my intent. Every story or object d'arte should have a message or a moral. When I create, I always have a message in mind. I hide the moral so as not to be preachy, but it's there. It is my responsibily to live with the consequences of THOSE morals. If I craft a story that I feel advocates teen suicide when confronted with parental control, I must be prepared to deal with suicides that result. In this case, I'm not prepared, so I would never write that story.

And, as an artist, it is never too late to disavow an interpretation or even the moral of your own story if you change your mind. For instance, Radiohead reportedly became alarmed when they performed their song "Prove Yourself" and heard their teenage audience singing the lyric, "I'm better off dead". It was removed from their concert playlist.

What about artists who advocate evil stuff? If a storyteller purposefully embeds a violent message within a tale which inspires acts of brutality, should the storyteller be held legally responsible? Is it even possible?

It would be disastrous. There are few ways for the legal system to discern harmful intent from an unintended interpretation. It would require mind-reading and thought-policing. It's a recipe for witch-hunts and the punishment of innocent artists. It's best for the legal system to make the perpetrators of evil acts responsible for their actions and leave their artistic inspirations out of the equation. For now artists who advocate violence, rape and suicide are safe from the legal system. But that doesn't mean they're safe from their own consciences. If they have no consciences, that still leaves them vulnerable to societal criticism and WalMart and Blockbuster pulling their products off the shelves. I'm okay with that.

Lastly, there is a final aspect of the morality of storytelling to consider. I have often heard a criticism of modern entertainment which equates it with tranquilizer. It is usually levelled at television, film and video games. It goes something like this: modern entertainment keeps people at home, glued to their sets, forgetting about problems in the world, instead involving them in fictional conflicts. People forget about real problems facing the world, which allows the military-industrial complex, which controls the entertainment industry, to continue carrying out their corrupt political outrages worldwide.

Should this be a moral concern for storytellers? Bah, I say. Do people who argue this idea believe that if every single monitor, television and movie screen on earth vanished, the population would morph into brooding revolutionaries and democracy would be restored? If television disappeared, we would soon be hearing about how books are keeping people in the home, tranquilized. The vanishing of books would not work either: we would soon be hearing about sell-out corporate storytellers seducing us by the campfire.

Storytelling is escapism. But it is not forced upon us by fatcats. As humans we seek stories because we love them. Maybe we need them. They are a part of human evolution and have been with us before the written word, shaping our worldview for tens of thousands of years. Yes, it sometimes inspires madmen to murder and the depressed to kill themselves. But it also has spread knowledge, morals and happiness throughout the world. It has inspired countless selfless and kindly acts. It is one of humanity's most complicated and wonderful creations.

So follow your passion without moral hesitation, you creators. To entertain is truly noble.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Saskatoon's Irish Music Community

For centuries, the Isle of Erin has been exporting the Irish. They left because of persecution by the English, potato blight, service in foreign armies, and hope in the new world. Every city across the globe has an Irish community. Quietly and without fanfare, every week, they gather in pubs to sing and play instruments: the Irish Music Session.

Ten years ago, I knew nothing of this. The circumstances that led me to Saskatoon's Irish Music community are part of a well-rehearsed tale. It's a story that's all too-familiar to those close to me, but I must recount it again.

In 2000 I was in my mid-twenties and lost. In the 90's, I had wanted to be a classical musician and composer. I pursued a Bachelor of Music degree with a Theory and Composition major when I left high school. However, I soon fell out with my University's chief composition professor, he being a strict modernist who studied with John Cage, I being a headstrong tonalist. After a few years of frustration and resulting low self esteem, I changed my degree to escape him. I briefly played viola with the Saskatoon Symphony, but was let go. After I finished my degree, I put my viola aside and did not touch it for two years. I truly thought that music was over for me. I felt angry and betrayed.

I cannot tell you how painful this separation was. Music, for me, is the closest thing I have to church. My first truly religious experience where my skin tingled and my consciousness soared occurred when I was playing viola in the last movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Music has since been my proof, however vague, of a higher power. My instrument has been my altar and melody and harmony my prayers.

Soon after the decade turned, I met Eileen Laverty, who told me of the existence of the Irish Music Sessions at Lydia's pub, hosted by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann. The following Saturday, viola in-hand, frightened and not sure what to expect, I stepped into Saskatoon's Irish Music Community.

All around me was the thump of bodhrans, the strum of guitar and bouzouki, the ringing of fiddles and lively voices singing beloved songs. Jigs and reels whirled in my brain. There again was that divine exhaltation I had lost, lifting my consciousness into ecstasy. After three glorious hours had passed, I was dizzy and elated.

It has been ten years since that day and Irish folk music has never left me. The people I met there welcomed me. Through them I discovered that I could sing, fiddle and play the banjo. I founded the wandering evening session that started at The Publican, but found a home at McGettigan's, the Brass Monkey, The Park Town and finally the Mendel Art Gallery. I've spent wonderful hours with the South-Central Ceili Band and the Residuals.

Last month, I stood up at the Lydia's session and told all present how grateful I felt. But that's not enough to thank all those musicians I have met over the years. If I had enough money, I would have expressed those thanks in beer that day. I'll write it here again: Thank you all, my friends. Even that is not enough. The gift that Saskatoon's Irish Community has given me, my renewed love of music, is greater than any alcohol or words could commend.

A special props goes out to my peeps in The Residuals. Ted Leighton, Rick Kroener, Rob McInnis, Meaghan Haughian, Bettina Grassman, Mike Podiluk, Gareth Bond, Erin Gaucher, Chris Meek and all those who have ever been a Residual, you're the best. Thank you for the music and the memories.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review of Network

Number 64 on AFI's movie list is Network, directed by Sidney Lumet. It is the story of Howard Beale (Peter Finch) a TV news reporter who has a psychotic break with reality and finally begins to broadcast the truth about the world. Meanwhile, the struggling network who controls his contract battles to harness his madness for their own benefit. It is a satire of television in the 1970s, which then becomes a satire of capitalism, spouting truths that are still relevant today. If you have never heard of Network before, you have surely heard the movie's most famous quote, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" and its many derivatives.

This is certainly a complicated movie. It is more of an intellectual exercise in satire than a traditional story. The characters are icons rather than real people. Yes, they have depth, but it is character depth piled upon symbols. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), for instance, bears this comparison: "You are television incarnate, Diana. Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality." Max Schumacher (William Holden), who delivers this line, represents Journalism in the traditional sense. Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) is capitalism incarnate.

Did I like it? I suppose I did. I wasn't that crazy about the second of the story's two plots, in which Diana and Max conduct an illicit and age-mismatched affair. However, this story is essential to understanding the satire. I don't want to say more for fear of spoilers.

I should also say that this is not the ha-ha sort of satire. It is a black sort of satire that you know can't end well. Not once through this picture did I get a rosy-feeling.

Network is prescient. As with most things prophetic, the prophecy took longer to realize than the prophet predicted. But twenty-five years after Network satirized television, reality TV finally sank to the depths predicted by the movie (shudder). It also predicted FOX news pundits: rabid, delusional madmen ranting about Arabs and capitalism.

Network is, without a doubt, an important film. Enjoyable? Well, maybe. It depends on your interests. I liked it well enough.
$3 1/2 billion dollars out of $5 billion.